The world is hungry, but ironically, Nigeria’s Minister of Agriculture, Mohammed Sabo Nanono, argues that Nigerians are not. A report by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) noted that about 795 million people globally do not have enough food to lead a healthy active life. This is a whopping figure, implying one out of nine people on earth is hungry.
Sadly, the majority of the world’s hungry live in developing countries where 12.9 per cent of the population is malnourished; they are deficient in the intake of energy and/or nutrients. This is especially true of Nigeria which is bedeviled with a lack of healthy choice of food and deficient in major nutrients like protein, carbohydrates, fats and oil, and water.
Protein is widely regarded as an essential building block of life. It is found in every cell of the body. When people do not get adequate amounts of protein from their diet, it leads to protein deficiency. Protein deficiency is today a major cause of malnutrition. The World Health Organisation (WHO) describes malnutrition as “the gravest single threat to the world’s public health.”
Protein is a macronutrient that is basic for the development, upkeep, and repair of all your body’s cells. Protein deficiency in Nigeria poses not only a major health burden but also an economic and social burden.
According to reports, 59 million Nigerians are macronutrient deficient and about 45 per cent of deaths among children under five years of age are linked to malnutrition. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (F.A.O) reveals that over 13 million Nigerian children are affected by chronic malnutrition or chronic malnourishment.
If not curbed, protein deficiency can lead to a number of diseases particularly kwashiorkor. It can also repress a youngster’s mental and physical advancement, mental hindrance (especially in infants) and cause tension, surliness, and crankiness.
In addition, malnourished women and girls of reproductive age have higher chances of giving birth to smaller babies (also called stunting), continuing the cycle of malnutrition into future generations.
The consequences of stunting in education are also huge. Various studies show that child stunting is likely to impact brain development and impair motor skills. According to UNICEF, stunting in early life is linked to 0.7-grade loss in schooling, a seven-month delay in starting school and between 22 and 45 per cent reduction in lifetime earnings. Stunted children become less-educated adults, thus making malnutrition a long-term and intergenerational problem.
A protein-deficient country slows economic growth and perpetuates poverty. Indirect losses for the country’s economy are caused by poor cognitive function and reduced school attainment that originate in early childhood due to under nutrition. In fact, the education gap and consequent lower skill-level of workforce substantially delay the development of countries affected by malnutrition.
Globally, the economic cost of malnutrition is estimated to range from 2 to 3 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). In Nigeria, it is as high as 11 percent according to a UNICEF report.
The effects of malnutrition are long-term and trap generations of individuals and communities in the vicious circle of poverty. Improving nutrition is therefore essential to eradicate poverty and accelerate the economic growth of low- and middle-income countries. There is much evidence that improved nutrition not only drives stronger economic and social growth but is of tremendous value for money.
With the huge number of protein-deficient people in Nigeria, it is no doubt a national emergency. All hands must thus be on deck to curb the occurrence.
There has to be a massive campaign to create awareness, as a first step, of the need to improve protein intake. In addition, government policies should be seen to truly empower citizens boosting the capacity to earn and thus be able to live meaningful and productive lives.
Eliminating protein deficiency is that task that must be accomplished, says Dr Olalere Olajide, a public health consultant based in Ibadan.
He explained that protein deficiency could be tackled from pregnancy if health care workers would educate pregnant women to eat affordable and available protein sources like food.
Affordability, he added, is key, and that is why available cheap sources of protein are crucial in the fight against deficiency. Poverty could prevent millions of Nigerians from having access to protein.
He also advised exclusive breastfeeding for six months, and locally accessible sources of protein could be explored by resource-poor families to ensure adequate diets for children under five years.
Dr Olajide said the government, including state and local governments, should make it a priority to promote protein consumption in the country by educating women, parents, and school administrators on the need.
A former chairman, Poultry Association of Nigeria (PAN), Oyo State, Mr John Olateru, also called on the federal and state governments to demonstrate more seriousness by extending the school feeding scheme to all states of the federation to reduce physical and hidden hunger.
Eggs and other sources of protein in the school feeding menus would go a long way in tackling the problem.